Friday, February 29, 2008

Different Types of Gaming Skills and Their Competitive Values

Games teach. We learn from games and we obtain new skills from games; some skills being more useful than others in our everyday lives. Games can have educational value that ameliorates one's mind, teach social skills through interaction with online players or smart A.I. characters, and be artistically and philosophically engaging to alter one's view of the world. These types of skills, however, are discussion for another time. Here, I will try to categorize the different types of competitive skills that can be gained from playing video games and list them in order of value, defined as how useful the skill is in competitive games and how much of it is intrinsically carried into another game.

1) Strategy
Strategic skills involve overcoming mental challenges, making decisions based on situations on hand, and outsmarting the opponent with mind-games. This is the most important and useful gaming skill. It is a mental skill that you can take with you into other games and stays with you until a very old age when you lose control of your cognitive abilities. Games built entirely around strategy, with no need for the other types of skills, happen to be the best games and longest surviving.

One such example is Chess, which takes about five minutes to understand how the game works and learn how the different pieces move, but takes a lifetime to master its strategic depth. Chess is a game of perfect information, stripping away luck from the equation, and is a turn-based board game, removing the need for physical mastery. Being a game of pure thinking and strategic planning, we find that it caters to players of all ages, from elementary school kids to old men sitting at parks. Other similar games are Chinese Chess, Go, Checkers, and Othello. There are also some great strategy games with imperfect information such as Mahjong, Poker, Bridge, Spades, Hearts, Big Two, Scrabble, and Stratego. Without perfect information, there is an element of luck thrown into the mix, but as long as players have complete control over their actions (actions during a turn are not based on a dice roll or a random card draw) and there is a fixed pool of resources (144 tiles in Mahjong, 52 cards in a deck, 100 tiles in Scrabble), then strategy is not compromised by random luck.

What does this have to do with video games? Competitive games that put primary focus on strategic skills tend to have longer lifespans. One such example is the Street Fighter 2 series, whose simplicity is its strongest asset. Being a fighting game by nature, it is played in real-time and involves a lot of twitch-based combat, but with its relatively simple system and tight controls, its barrier of entry is far smaller than more recent fighting games. As much as I love them, games such as Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Guilty Gear XX Accent Core are too execution heavy, thus the best player is the one who practices their combos the most, not the one who has the better mind-games. In the Street Fighter 2 series, however, the game is not too fast-paced, has little effects clutter, and has a simple universal system, therefore putting emphasis on spacing and zoning, reading the opponent's moves, and tricking the opponent into a defenseless position. The newest iteration of the game, entitled Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo: HD Remix, will put further emphasis on the strategic elements of the game by making execution easier, and I absolutely cannot wait for it.

Another popular game with focus on strategy is Counter-Strike. Of course, it's a first-person shooter and it involves twitch-based gameplay, but it's not as important as what weapons you take into combat and tactical teamwork. And a more recent example of a great strategy game is Defense of the Ancients, which removes all the things that made real-time strategy games too convoluted and twitchy (e.g. resource gathering, structure building, and micromanagement) and focuses on the core mechanics such as teamwork, flanking, and character match-ups.

Strategic skills are the most important skill to master. Most gaming tournaments center around strategy-based games and you can expect these games to have a long lifespan, so all your time invested in them is not immediately wasted. As most games are based on the same elementary concepts, an understanding of controlling space and pressuring the opponent will help you win many games.

2) Twitch
Whereas strategy represents the mental elements of a game, twitch represents the physical elements. Twitch skill is based on execution of complicated controller commands and quick reactions to circumstances. Although the aforementioned games are primarily focused on strategy, all three contain twitch elements such as Street Fighter 2's execution of combos and complicated moves (e.g. Zangief's Final Atomic Buster, Guile's Double Somersault), Counter-Strike's shootouts and bunny-hopping, and Defense of the Ancient's click-combat and operation of its user-interface. In fact, there are genres based entirely around twitch gameplay such as shoot-em-ups, music and rhythm games, and most block-dropping puzzle games. These are the games that test your reflexes and improve your hand-eye coordination.

You can improve your strategic skill by watching others play and talking to expert gamers, but twitch is a skill that can only be improved through your own practice. Having an expert Guitar Hero player tell you how to effectively perform hammer-ons or play the fifth button does not help; you have to actually try it for yourself over and over again until you get the hang of it. Practicing your twitch skills does help you when you make the jump to other games. Since all first-person shooters involve pointing an aiming reticule over an enemy model, learning how to do it in one game will give you an automatic advantage when you play another shooter. Likewise, learning how to perform quarter-circles and charges in one 2D fighting game will help you jump into another 2D fighter with a low barrier of entry.

Ultimately, strategy has more overall value than twitch skills. You lose your physical capabilities much sooner than your mental capabilities, and since twitch is a physical skill, you find it quite difficult to master twitch games before the age of 10 and past the age of 30. You'll see strategy-focused games played by people of all ages, but twitch games are mainly played by the young adult crowd who not only has the physical proficiency to master the game, but also has the time to invest in practicing the game.

3) Knowledge
Knowledge is another mental skill, but it is different than strategy. Strategy is based on the how, knowledge is based on the what. Strategy involves making informed decisions and outsmarting the opponent, but knowledge simply involves knowing more than the opponent. For example, knowing the map in a first-person shooter definitely gives the player the advantage over someone who's playing the map for the very first time. Knowledge can be gained simply by playing the game for a while and obtaining observations from other players; it does not require as much analyzing as it does to obtain strategy or as much practicing as it does to obtain twitch skills. Whereas strategy and twitch have essentially no limit, your knowledge of a game caps out when you find out everything the game as to offer.

Knowledge is an undeniably significant skill to have, but unfortunately, it is game-specific. Knowledge of the Valhalla map in Halo 3 is only useful in the context of Halo 3; it is no longer a useful skill when you're playing Call of Duty 4. Generally, knowledge is reset with every new game you play. The only time when that is not true is when you play another game of the same series and familiar characters, weapons, maps, or system make it into the sequel. However, with every new character, weapon, or map that is added to the new game, you must rethink and alter your knowledge.

4) Willpower/Time
Willpower is a bit of a mental skill and a bit of a physical skill, but mostly, it is a time-based skill. This skill applies mostly to role-playing games. Willpower is the skill to drudge through long amounts of simple and unsophisticated gameplay to level up your character or find a new item. It is the skill to endure, or maybe even enjoy, a grindfest or a collectathon. And it is arguably not a skill at all as heard through the phrase, "It's a test of will, not a test of skill."

Role-playing games give the least competitive value for amount of time put in. The time spent in willpower-based games do not reflect the skill level of the player, but the skill level of the virtual character. The character will grow in statistics and learn new moves, but the player's skill level remains stagnant throughout, growing not much further than what he started out with when first picking up the game. Though there is some strategy and some twitch skills to be gained in role-playing games, the emphasis is mostly on willpower, time, and knowledge of the game. Unfortunately, when jumping to a completely new game, all that is reset and lost in the process. Willpower and time are skills that are not carried over to new games and thus, has the least value.

Despite being a useless skill, games based around willpower manage to be incredibly popular. Perhaps, fans of RPGs don't like exercising their minds and their bodies when playing games or they just don't care about competitive gameplay. RPGs are designed for a different type of gamer, someone who enjoys aesthetics and narrative over competition, someone who plays games for relaxation or social endeavors, someone who likes exploring or the simple act of achieving.

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